Letters flowed from Ruth (Birdsall) Elmhurst’s pen like a fast-moving creek, her quirky penmanship barely keeping pace with her speeding thoughts and earnest observations about the world around her. Ruth, my paternal grandmother, closed several of the missives in my stash of letters by listing the other people she had to write to that evening.
My wrist aches at the thought of this social media of the past. No handy apps for speedy posts and easy connections. No cut-and-paste shortcuts to swap info from one email to the next. Just pull out another sheet of paper, draw up some ink, and start again.
Her letters – informative, compelling, and humorous – are a window into the first half of the 20th century, a time of great change not only for this rural teen-cum-wife / mother but also for the world in general with its roller-coaster of wars, Depression and community building.
But, for me, reading the letters was an emotional exercise long before it was a book project. And the emotion that washed over me again and again was regret, because I had to face my own shortcomings.
You see, the Ruth (Birdsall) Elmhurst in the letters was not the Ruth (Birdsall) Elmhurst I knew, even though we shared the family home during my childhood on a farm near Peterborough, Ont. In 1947, well before I was born, major surgery left her paralyzed on one side. When I think of our conversations, I hear only short, laboured sentences. When I think of her handwriting, I see an unsteady signature on a birthday card.
I was barely into adulthood when she died in 1974, too naïve to fully comprehend the depth of loss from that devastating surgery. Too naïve to comprehend that a fascinating, vibrant woman still lived just beyond the shadow of her disabilities.
My new book Life & Legacy is a small attempt to make amends – to honour my grandmother’s life and to free the voice I never heard.
• • •
Almost all of the 145 letters that sparked the book project have an authentic, freewheeling tone. It’s partly personality, but it’s also partly because they were spun for a “safe” audience, especially those to Ruth’s daughter Rachel Grover, who left the family farm for the University of Toronto in 1939. When a letter flies from a mother’s heart to a daughter’s embrace, there’s no need to pump up the image or self-edit the stream of thoughts.
Besides, the 1940s letters are a perfect fit for the Aunt Rachel I knew, a woman whose intelligence, confidence and sophistication were rooted in a humble, caring nature and a delightful wit.
And – praise be! – Aunt Rachel was also a person with an innate respect for documents. A future manuscript librarian at University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, she squirrelled these letters away. Plus she gathered others that caught her attention over the years – more formal letters Ruth sent to Rachel’s husband John Grover during the Second World War and spirited letters Ruth wrote to her own mother during travels in her younger years.
And – praise be again! – Rachel’s sister Barbara Mather took over these preservation duties in 2003 when a stroke forced Aunt Rachel to move from her Toronto home. (Aunt Rachel died in 2015.) All of this passion for the family’s past became a tremendous gift to me when Aunt Barbara passed along a binder full of original letters during my visit to her Peterborough apartment in late 2019.
There was no book project at the time. This was simply a gift from an aunt to an inquisitive niece.
• • •
The book project sought me out when I wasn’t looking.
The early days of the 2020 pandemic opened a vast window of time for Type A personalities such as myself. One day, while prowling the house looking for distractions, I opened the binder once again and started reading the letters with deeper interest. Soon I was researching names and events, placing my grandmother more solidly within her family and times.
And then I learned through Aunt Barbara’s daughters, Jill Wesley and Jennifer MacIsaac, that these letters and others had been transcribed by Trent University prof Kathryn Campbell. No more squibbles to decipher …
And then I learned that my Aunt Laura (wife of Dick Elmhurst, Barbara and Rachel’s brother) had old photo albums packed with family images …
And then I realized I wanted to turn my discoveries into words. Life & Legacy had issued an invitation I couldn’t refuse.